Jenna Baron is the curator of Twasonga, an exhibition of photos and interviews with members of Kenya’s disability rights movement. The interview has been condensed for clarity.
A photo with an interview excerpt from Twasonga
Jessica Rohan: How did you first obtain the material for this exhibition?
Jenna Baron: It came from the research that I did while I was living in Nairobi, Kenya. When I was doing my research, it was pretty much all interview-based. I met with activists and other professionals involved in disability work and would interview them to sort of understand their stories and the kind of work that they do. This is the product of those interviews. It’s their photos as well as an excerpt from their interviews.
JR: What inspired the title, Twasonga?
JB: At the time when I was living in Kenya, I went in 2013, it was the 50th year of Kenya’s independence from Great Britain. The national slogan which I saw everywhere was ‘Pamoja twasonga mbele’ which means ‘Together we move forward’. Of course, I think it’s a pretty powerful phrase. It’s selling this sense of Kenyan pride and moving forward and hopeful. I thought it was very appropriate based on the stories I was gathering from the people in the disability rights movement. One day I was sitting on a bus, these huge vehicles that may sit up to 70 people at any given time. I looked across the eight-lane highway and saw this wheelchair strapped to the top of one of these gigantic buses. I thought that was such a powerful image because that person, wherever they were coming from, took the time … probably had to sit at that bus stop for hours until somebody finally agreed to allow them onto the bus and take the time to strap that wheelchair to the top and pay extra money for him to do it. I mean it was probably just for one appointment or one interview that they had in Nairobi that they had to go all this way for. But they were moving. They were rarely … There’s a lot of sacrifice that people with disabilities have to make but in the end they’re going to do it. Many of the people I talked to had faced those barriers and sort of were able to bust through them and they are working so that others don’t have to do that in the future.
An overriding theme through all of the interviews I collected was this process of telling the story of people with disabilities and also how people who are ‘able-bodied’, I say it in quotes, view the lives of people with disabilities. Often the activists I was interviewing would say, “Disability is a club; it’s free of charge. You can enter any time you want and also it’s almost always not your choice to enter into the club of disability.” By that, they were just trying to stress to [able-bodied] people that by creating more accessible places, they’re not only ensuring better life for people with disabilities now but for potentially their future.
JR: Since most of your research involved text and audio content, why was the visual component of the photos so important to you for this exhibit?
JB: I can’t really imagine the exhibit without the photos. It’s really important that the viewers not only read what it is, who it was I interviewed and who it is that’s leading the disability rights movement; I also wanted them in this context here in the U.S. to see the actual images of the people I’ve interviewed. I want people to sort of reimagine what it is to be … What a Kenyan … What it is to be an African in general and expand the understanding of what it is to be the people who I interviewed. With the goal of sort of giving a new perspective of a Kenyan that’s shifting the narrative that we usually hear. It goes without saying that the narratives we hear of Africa and Kenyans is that of maybe poverty and hopelessness, but the people I interviewed are very strong professionals who are paving the way here for people with disabilities to have more accessible space in the future. I wanted viewers to see the images of them and understand that there are many different kinds of Kenyans. There are many different kinds of Africans. I had an experience when I was actually printing my photos. The person who was printing them for me was surprised by the images that he was looking at because it just didn’t, I guess, fit the picture he had of who Kenyans are. His response is, “Oh, it looks like you were hanging out with the upper crust here.” I just had to explain … the people I was interviewing were the Kenyan middle class. They’re people who work in cities. They’re people who work for NGOs that provide services for people with disabilities. I mean it ran the gamut but it was very surprising for him to see a different image of Kenyans. I think that’s really valuable for people who will see Twasonga.
Visitors at the premiere of Twasonga on May 1st in Pittsburgh
JR: Do you see any relationship or points of intersection between mainstream narratives of Africans and of people with disabilities?
JB: A theme that came up a lot was this idea of pity and that the people I interviewed are really frustrated by being seen as people who aren’t independent and that who can’t achieve the same thing that an able-bodied person can. I think it’s a really interesting connection to sort of see the intersection of those narratives of being an African and also having a disability. One of the activists that I have in the exhibit, he talks about a trip that he took to South Africa for a conference. He noted that he had rented a BMW for the trip and wore a suit every day. At one point during the conference, he had to run an errand for someone. As he got out of the car at the store, came over and handed money to him and he was like, “Please, I want you to take this. Please take it.” The Kenyan who I’m referring to responded to him, “Who do you think you are? If you want to come to Kenya, I can give you a job.” He was so frustrated by this … This man knew nothing about him at all. But the minute he steps out into public space, the perception the public has of him is that he’s poor; they’re just totally looking past his BMW.
JR: The exhibition coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. What do you hope that people who are involved in the disability rights movement in the U.S. will get out of the exhibit, and maybe just the larger community of people who might come to see the exhibit?
JB: It is timely, I would say, that it is the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to get on the local radar of the committee that is hosting events throughout Pittsburgh to commemorate that, the anniversary. I hope that people learn about the work of the people being featured, the activists and the other professionals. For example, somebody that I interviewed, her name is Sitawa and she is a mental health and epilepsy blogger. She recently started up an SMS, a text helpline so people who need help could text her. It could be anything from needing to schedule an appointment and not knowing where to go or just having somebody to talk to. I think that’s a really innovative approach that she’s taken and I think that’s something that the people who walk through the exhibit may be very inspired by. I think in that sense the viewers will be seeing Kenyans as innovative and strong and a part of a really strong movement in Kenya. I think that they’ll have a lot to gain from what Kenyans have done in order to make a more accessible environment for people with disabilities. The biggest issues in Pittsburgh with people with disabilities right now I’ve learned are housing and also employment opportunities because not only are the opportunities not ample but a lot of the training isn’t there for people who are coming out of high school. There’s been a lot of work done here in Pittsburgh to promote that, but there are also really cool instances in Kenya where they have created employment opportunities. Kenya’s largest telecommunications company is called Safaricom. They have opened up a large percentage of their employment opportunities specifically to people with visual impairments. One of the people who will be showcased in the exhibit, in Twasonga, was a part of that happening. I hope people that do end up seeing the stories are inspired not only to do work in their lives to creating some more accessible places but to view people around the world in a new light … to see people around the world as people they can learn from. I think that the Kenyans featured in Twasonga illustrate how much we have to gain from looking to our neighbors.
JR: What are your plans for Twasonga after its successful premiere earlier this month?
JB: I’m currently searching for new venues in Pittsburgh, and my hope for the future of the project is that the exhibit will travel to show in other cities.
Jessica Rohan is an Associate Editor for Warscapes. She is a freelance writer and researcher based in Philadelphia. She received a BA in 2013 from the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied sociology, anthropology and global studies with concentrations in the Middle East and North Africa and conflict/conflict resolution. She is interested in global media and the role of public art in social movements. Twitter @jessica_rohan